Lee Boyd Malvo, 10 years after D.C. area sniper shootings: ‘I was a monster’

September 29, 2012

Lee Boyd Malvo said he remembers each of the sniper shootings in detail. But one moment — one image — stands out among the carnage of that terrifying time 10 years ago:

“Mr. Franklin’s eyes.”

Malvo remembers being in the blue Chevrolet Caprice, in which police found binoculars and walkie-talkies. He scanned the area to make sure John Allen Muhammad had a clean shot. He gave the “go” order and looked across Route 50 in Seven Corners at the target. Muhammad, hidden on a hill above, pulled the trigger. A bullet screamed across the highway, instantly killing Linda Franklin, who just happened to be going about her business at the Home Depot in Virginia at precisely the wrong time.

But mostly he remembers Ted Franklin’s eyes — the devastation, the shock, the sadness. “They are penetrating,” Malvo said in a rare media interview from prison. “It is the worst sort of pain I have ever seen in my life. His eyes. . . . Words do not possess the depth in which to fully convey that emotion and what I felt when I saw it. . . . You feel like the worst piece of scum on the planet.” (Related: Sniper shootings, 10 years later, haunt those it touched)

Malvo’s attitude provides a sharp contrast to his posture 10 years ago. Shortly after his arrest, a boastful, defiant Malvo told investigators that he fired the bullet that killed Franklin. He laughed and pointed to his head to show where the bullet struck. Told about Malvo’s words, one of those investigators said he wouldn’t be surprised if Muhammad fired the fatal shot and thinks Malvo might be coming to grips with what he did.

Ten years since the D.C. sniper shootings

It has been 10 years since Malvo and Muhammad went on one of the most notorious killing sprees in the nation’s history. Over 21 days in October 2002, the pair ambushed 13 unsuspecting strangers, killing 10 of them, in the Washington area. They succeeded in terrorizing the region, as death could come anywhere, anytime: in gas stations and parking lots. They even shot and wounded a 13-year-old standing in front of a middle school. Sporting events were canceled. People cowered behind tarps as they filled their cars with gas. Parents kept their children home. After the two were caught, they were tied to at least 11 more shootings from Washington state to Alabama, five of them fatal.

Muhammad is gone — executed in 2009 for his crimes. Malvo, the scrawny teenager, the cold-blooded accomplice, is now 27.

His killer stare seems to have softened. He speaks with animation and poise, and with an adult perspective on what he did. He claims to understand the enormity of his actions — the trail of death and loss and pain he left behind — and believes that but for Muhammad, he might have accomplished something in life.

“I was a monster,” Malvo said. “If you look up the definition, that’s what a monster is. I was a ghoul. I was a thief. I stole people’s lives. I did someone else’s bidding just because they said so. . . . There is no rhyme or reason or sense.”

Retired FBI agent Brad Garrett, who helped question Malvo in 2002, said he’s not surprised by what Malvo is saying in 2012.

“When we interviewed him, our belief was that he was under the spell of Muhammad and that would wear off as time went on,” Garrett said Saturday. Interrogators “knew that he was covering for Muhammad. He wouldn’t put the gun in Muhammad’s hands in 2002. The spell was starting to wear off at trial, and now that he’s in jail for his entire life he’s probably being more realistic about what Muhammad did and didn’t do. He’s older, and he understands now how impressionable he was.”

Malvo today

In three hours of interviews this month, Malvo reflected on the sniper shootings and what led to the deadly spree of crimes that stretched coast to coast. He said he is different now, extricated from Muhammad’s grip, and wiser. He said he has deep regret for everything he did. He added several details to what was known about how he and Muhammad carried out the shootings undetected.

Much of what he said was similar to the narrative his attorneys presented at his 2003 capital murder trial in Franklin’s death. Jurors spared his life, largely because they believed that while he was responsible for the killings, he was also under Muhammad’s control.

Malvo spoke through plexiglass on Sept. 19 in the stark cinder-block visitation room at Red Onion State Prison, a remote supermax facility tucked among Virginia’s Appalachian coal mines, about eight hours from Washington. Prison officials would not allow paper or pens or pencils into the room. Malvo then spoke the next day by telephone in four separate, recorded calls.

He said there is no explanation for why he and Muhammad killed so many people, only that he learned of Muhammad’s plans piecemeal. He knows that Muhammad snapped when he lost custody of his children and wanted to get back at his ex-wife, Mildred Muhammad, who lived in Prince George’s County, so he could get the children back. And there was talk of taking the children away and starting a new society with the money they were trying to extract from the government, but Malvo said he can’t be sure of Muhammad’s real motives. Malvo also said that in October 2002, he would have done anything Muhammad asked of him.

In the interview, Malvo did not make any fanciful claims, as he did in his only other media contact. In a summer 2010 interview with William Shatner for the A&E Cable network, Malvo claimed that he and Muhammad shot 42 people and had accomplices along the way. Authorities have discounted those assertions.

Malvo was respectful and willing to answer questions from The Washington Post. A slight man with close-cropped hair, Malvo has a broad smile and often uses his hands to express himself, such as when pointing to his temple while explaining how his mind was warped.

He is confined to a small, segregation cell 23 hours a day — he gets to exercise in an enclosed pen, take showers and sometimes do menial jobs on his own during that other hour. He has no physical interaction with other inmates. He has taken a deep interest in yoga and meditation. He writes poetry, draws and corresponds with people by mail, including one person who maintains a Facebook page for him under the Facebook moniker Lee B. Malvo. (On the page, Malvo lists his favorite movie as “Titanic” and asks for donations so he can buy commissary items. At the Red Onion interview, he was wearing a new Timex digital watch on his left wrist.)

Though at peace with a life behind bars — “I see opportunity everywhere” — Malvo said he has had to work hard to recover from what he calls a total brainwashing at the hands of a “sinister” and “evil” man who manipulated him into an effective “killing machine” — claims similar to those made at his trial.

‘A military mission’

Malvo grew up in Jamaica and Antigua, and he looks back at the 14-year-old who met Muhammad as if he’s a million miles away. That boy was a vagabond, bouncing from his father to his mother and enduring physical abuse. He was fighting an illness, Malvo said, and Muhammad swooped in and nursed him back to health.

“The groundwork was laid in Antigua because I leaned on him, I trusted him,” Malvo said. “I was unable to distinguish between Muhammad the father I had wanted and Muhammad the nervous wreck that was just falling to pieces. He understood exactly how to motivate me by giving approval or denying approval. It’s very subtle. It wasn’t violent at all. It’s like what a pimp does to a woman.”

Muhammad was a savior in Malvo’s eyes, someone who could make his dreams come true. An ideal. And Malvo sees that boy now as the perfect rube.

“He picked me because he knew he could mold me,” Malvo said at Red Onion. “He knew I could be what he needed me to be. . . . He could not have chosen a better child.”

Malvo said he believes the shootings would have happened whether he was the accomplice or it was some other kid; he said they were an inevitable part of Muhammad’s plan, almost fated.

In 2001, Malvo, Muhammad and Muhammad’s three children left Antigua for the United States. Malvo briefly lived with his mother in Florida before boarding a bus to be with his “dad,” Muhammad, in Tacoma, Wash. It was right around the time that Muhammad was losing his own children. A judge ordered that they could live with Muhammad’s wife in secrecy. Malvo said losing the children devastated Muhammad, and he switched from a caring father figure to a steely and erratic leader.

“It was a military mission” at that point, Malvo said. “He told me to do something, and I did it. After a certain point, he didn’t have to say anything. He would just look at me, and I understood.”

Malvo said that Muhammad had him go to a gun range nearly every day. He learned how to shoot dozens of different weapons there. Some days, Malvo said, he would be at the range for 12 hours at a time. Muhammad would lurk over Malvo’s shoulder and tell him to envision himself shooting and killing the old Lee Malvo, the weak Lee Malvo, the wayward Lee Malvo.

So Malvo shot at himself, over and over and over again. When it came time for the first killing — Kenya Cook, 21, in Tacoma in February 2002 — Malvo said it was almost automatic. Muhammad told him what to do and he did it, he said. He saw his own face on Cook’s and was thinking he shot himself. He said he doesn’t even remember what she looked like. He vomited later, racked with grief.

“That was the beginning of the end,” Malvo said. “I knew I was going to die one way or the other, that going down this path ended with my death.”

‘Emotional numbness’

Cook, whose only sin was being in a house where a friend of Mildred Muhammad’s was staying, was the first victim in a spree that hit California, Arizona, Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, the District and Virginia. Malvo said there were at least 200 crimes that ranged from the murders everyone remembers to robberies and assaults.

“If we were anywhere for three days, someone was getting robbed,” Malvo said.

“We were searching for Mildred,” Malvo said, adding that everything they did was toward the goal of finding her and getting the children back.

“Every day there was something to do, something to focus on, in order to get me to that state of emotional numbness in which he could just say, ‘Do,’ and it immediately happened,” he said. “There was no hesi­ta­tion. There was no thought. There was no moral compunction. There was no interference. He said ‘Jump’ and it was, ‘How high?’ . . . It was a systematic process until he got me where he needed me to be. Day in, day out, he controlled what I read, what I did, what I ate, my itinerary, when I slept.”

There was military precision to the attacks, and then there were after-action briefings, in which Muhammad would critique the crimes down to the finest details, Malvo said. Malvo said he carried out the crimes that involved getting close to people, such as handgun shootings and robberies, or any shooting that involved possibly getting caught. He called Muhammad “a coward” and believes that Muhammad was setting him up to take the fall.

Malvo said that he felt as if Muhammad kept him on a “need to know” basis and that he did not know what the plan was until long into the shootings. He said the five shootings in Montgomery County on the morning of Oct. 3, 2002, were based “on a strategy of compacting everything in one area” so that they could “use the system against itself” and overwhelm authorities. He said they spent weeks scoping out 60 different spots.

On the day of the shootings, they would drive up to one of the spots and stay there for 10 minutes. If a shot presented itself, they took it.

“We’d drive up, he’d park, he’d go in the trunk, I’d put my window down halfway, and I could see whatever . . . ,” Malvo said. “My focus is on witnesses, passengers, and whenever there was an opening, I told him to shoot.” It was rapid, one after another, he said, all at random. “Whoever was there.”

Malvo said he shot many people en route to the District, then took the shots that injured 13-year-old Iran Brown at a Bowie middle school on Oct. 7 — “Imagine that, a kid, shooting a kid,” he said, slapping his right hand to his forehead — and Jeffrey Hopper at the Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland, Va., on Oct. 19. He said he also killed Conrad Johnson, the final sniper shooting, on Oct. 22, in Aspen Hill.

When prompted, Malvo remembered crossing paths with a Post reporter in Ashland in 2002. Malvo said he remembered a green car turning into a hotel parking lot as light rain began to fall — “You almost hit me,” he recalled — and how he was scurrying toward the wood line to pick up a duffel bag he had hidden away.

He said he wandered up to the news conferences that night in a brightly colored sweater and spoke to police officers and others, asking what was going on. He called it “intelligence collection” and said he did the same thing at other scenes.

‘Layers of darkness’

At times, Malvo said, he stashed the sniper rifle in holes and hides near shooting locations. He would then wait for police to search the area and would return later to get the gun. Police found the weapon in the blue Chevy Caprice when the two were arrested.

They were aware of the media coverage and tailored some of their actions accordingly, Malvo said. The white van and white box truck craze led Malvo to call shots when there were white vans and trucks nearby, knowing the vehicles would draw attention away from them.

He said the killings became remarkably routine. The victims weren’t victims — they were targets, he said.

“There is no feeling,” Malvo said. “At that point in time, I had been desensitized. I’d been killing people for months, if not a whole year, day in and day out. In the midst of the task, there is no feeling. . . . It got to a point where I’d get in a zone. There was nothing else but whoever is before me, and anything that comes between me and, as you would say, the target, I’m either going to destroy, or if it’s too big, find a way around it. Nothing is going to stop me but death to get that done.

“I was able to tap into a place that if there was a soul there it was behind layers and layers and layers of darkness.”

But deep down, Malvo said, there were still elements of his former self. He said there were several times when he thought about killing himself and once when he pulled a gun on Muhammad. He also said there was one time he drew a line: Muhammad told him during the D.C. shootings that Malvo had to kill a pregnant woman, and Malvo couldn’t bring himself to do it when the opportunity presented itself.

After their arrest, Malvo took the blame for all the shootings in early interviews with police, at times bragging about certain shots and killings. Now, he says, those interviews were planned attempts to deflect responsibility from Muhammad.

“Once they told me I was in Virginia [where the death penalty is more prevalent], I did everything I thought I could do to save his life,” Malvo said. “It was just a mixture of half-truths, details that only I or the killer would know, because I was there. What’s crazy is this entire process. I’m concerned for him, and he doesn’t give a rat’s a-- whether I live or die.”

Malvo said the most enduring memory about the shootings for him, next to Ted Franklin’s eyes, is something he realized when he returned to Virginia after testifying against Muhammad in Maryland. He saw an educational television show in which Stanton Samenow — a clinical psychologist who testified as an expert against Malvo at trial — explained that a criminal’s actions do not devastate just a single family but also their neighbors, their community, anyone the victim knew. A large and expanding circle of people.

“Once I began to list the victims for every single possible crime that I could think of, the number, quickly, it was like multiplying by seven. It just exponentially grew,” Malvo said. “The enormity of it. When you’re in the midst of doing the shooting, that was my sole focus. I didn’t give it thought. . . . You never get a grasp on what exactly you actually did and what the ramifications were for others.”

And Malvo is outwardly apologetic to his victims and their families, but he said there’s no way to express that. When asked what he would say directly to them, he implored people to forget about him.

“We can never change what happened,” Malvo said. “There’s nothing that I can say except don’t allow me and my actions to continue to victimize you for the rest of your life. It may sound cold, but it’s not. It’s the only sound thing I can offer. You and you alone have the power to control that. And, you take the power away from this other person, this monster, and you take control. . . .

“Don’t allow myself or Muhammad to continue to make you a victim for the rest of your life,” Malvo said. “It isn’t worth it.”

Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.

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